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High mercury prompts new Utah fish consumption warnings

Published September 9, 2013 9:24 am

Health • Advisory on fish consumption lists about two dozen contaminated Utah sites.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State health and environmental regulators updated fish consumption warnings for mercury Thursday, just as Utahns started packing up for holiday weekend getaways.

Children under age 6 and pregnant women should not eat largemouth bass from Quail Creek Reservoir in Washington County and Recapture Reservoir in San Juan County, according to the latest advisory. And they should not eat walleye over 12 inches from Starvation Reservoir in Duchesne County or any walleye from Yuba Reservoir in Juab and Sanpete counties.

In addition, northern pike from Yuba Reservoir should be limited to just one serving a month by children and pregnant women, according to the latest advisory by the Utah Department of Health and the state divisions of wildlife resources and environmental quality.

With the new announcements, the tally of contaminated sites statewide stands at about two dozen — with all but a few posing the greatest risk from toxic mercury. Nonetheless, state officials were quick to add that fish is generally a healthy food choice.

"Keep in mind, fish is still a healthy part of the diet," said Amy Dickey, a leader in the fish advisory program. "Follow the advisories and choose wisely."

Why mercury is turning up in lakes and streams around the state continues to be a discussion of the Mercury Work Group. After about eight years of brainstorming, the regulators, government scientists, academics, industries and advocacy groups who make up the group still struggle over a lack of staffing and funding.

And, while they've learned a lot about the Great Salt Lake as a mercury-making machine and the gold mines in Nevada as a likely source of some of the pollution, they still have lots of questions. For instance, on Thursday they mulled how climate cycles might be playing a role in fluctuating mercury levels and the role selenium plays in boosting the toxic form of mercury.

Though naturally occurring, mercury can build up, sometimes drifting into waterways from the air and upstream mining, the thinking goes. It can be transformed into its toxic form, methylmercury, which accumulates in nerves and muscles. It poses the greatest threat to young children and women who are nursing, pregnant or trying to become pregnant because of potential neurological damage.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued health recommendations for mercury from fish that is based on how much is consumed. Utah and other states have looked to these guidelines to develop their own advisories.

The state has discovered in testing at hundreds of Utah locations that about 10 percent of Utah's waters have fish with elevated levels of mercury. That leads to the consumption-based guidelines that are linked to typical body weights.

"Any health risks associated with eating fish from the high-mercury areas are based on long-term consumption and are not tied to eating fish occasionally," noted a news release on the latest advisories. "There is no health risk associated with mercury in the water for other uses of the reservoirs, streams, rivers or creeks, such as swimming, boating and waterskiing."

Roger Wilson of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources pointed out that smaller walleye are also perfectly safe to eat at Starvation.

"Just stay within the guidelines," he said.

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah —

Utah fish advisories

O Find the latest advisories about fish and fishing around the state. › http://www.fishadvisories.utah.gov